Yesterday’s Swimwear…Or Today’s?

History museums have long been viewed as valued cultural institutions. Through the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of history, they strive to use the past to tell us something about who we are and to help pave the way for the future. The notion of history playing an active role in shaping the future might be more direct than it at first seems. Take the fashion industry, for example. The other day I was working with a collection of swimwear that had recently been donated by Lucy Tanner, a former MCHS board member and current museum member. Though dating to the mid-twentieth century, these swimsuits bear a striking resemblance to today’s retro look. Are museums potential gold mines of inspiration for new trends? If the recent additions to our swimwear collection are any proof, they could easily have already served in that capacity.

Until a few years ago, the museum’s collection of swimwear was somewhat scanty. It consisted of a woman’s Victorian bathing costume and a man’s early twentieth century union-style bathing suit. Ironically, the women’s suit had been worn by Lottie Lee (Tanner) Martin, the great aunt of Ed Tanner, Lucy’s husband. The addition of five women’s one-piece swimsuits and two men’s bathing trunks has definitely bolstered the collection. Wonderful examples of mid-twentieth century fashions, they could easily be worn to any lake this summer and not seem out of place.

Many of the recent sales ads and articles in women’s magazines on swimwear have featured suits with a skirt or shorts look. Swimsuits with skirts or consisting of short skimpy dresses with halter tops were also popular during the mid-twentieth century. Three of the women’s suits that were donated by Lucy have a short skirt look. The refreshing blue and white stripe suit, for example, consists of a halter top and skirt made from a cotton seersucker material with a blue knit body-hugging liner underneath. Most swimsuits with skirts or dresses have some sort of liner. While these are a throw-back to the era of full coverage, which for women meant bloomers worn under heavy dresses, they remain essential for modesty.

Consisting of a halter top and short shorts, the remaining women’s suits look like they would be perfect for any World War II pin-up girl. The style of short shorts combined with an exposed midriff, which was all the rage in the 1940s, seems to be a big hit today as well.

The almost total replacement of natural fibers with synthetics by the end of World War II revolutionized the swimwear industry. This gave designers greater flexibility and more room for experimentation. Rayon, Lastex and Nylastic became popular choices for swimwear fabrics. By the 1960s, Spandex was added to the list. The strength, durability and elasticity of the new fabrics ushered in an era of swimwear design that attempted to reflect the natural look of the body rather than trying to reshape it. Thanks to the new “Nude Look”, the bikini had a field day. Popular culture helped to fuel the bikini mania. Pop singer Bryan Hyland’s song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, and Annette Funicello’s Beach Party films reinforced the immense popularity of the new craze.

The new fabrics also allowed for stunningly bright colors and fabric designs. The fabric of one of the suits (seen above) is a colorful combination of bright blue, yellow and green. The design is a wild and vibrant floral print, much like that on some of the swimwear featured in a recent Target ad. The design easily captures the distinct modish look of the sixties and seventies.

Men’s swimwear styles have not gone through quite the same level of radical design change as women’s swimwear styles have. Tending to be shorts or briefs, they are traditionally boxy and solid and have usually stayed pretty close to the style of men’s underwear. Until the 1930s, modesty was an issue for men as well as for women. Prior to this time, men were prohibited from going topless on some beaches in the United States. The Bathing Suit Regulations of 1917, for example, stated that men’s suits needed to have a skirt or at least a skirt effect. Change came mainly through the efforts of Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan, and the BVD Company. The outcome of their collaboration was the first pair of men’s bathing trunks much like what we see today. In an effort to reduce the shock level of this radical new design, and hopefully sell more suits, the trunks were dressed up. They often had a simulated fly front and a belt and buckle effect. The blue wool knit men’s bathing trunks donated by Lucy have belt loops and a tailored waistband. The fabric’s pinstripe weave, reminiscent of the ever-popular pinstripe suit, adds to the formal design.

By the late 1940s, things had really picked up in men’s swimwear design. In 1947, for example, the Jantzen Company came out with a line of “savage swim trunks”. This daring suit was modeled by James Garner, the reigning “Mr. Jantzen”. The light blue cotton men’s trunks donated by Lucy were the height of fashion, with their close-fitting design and bold fabric pattern of interlocking shells and fish. Though faded, they are a good example of the explosion of colors and patterns that found a place in both men’s and women’s swimwear.

Just about three years ago, the museum’s collection of swimwear was featured in the MCHS Summer newsletter. The number of hits this article continues to get on the museum’s website is amazing, though perhaps not surprising. People like to swim, swimwear has become a major fashion industry and, to point out the obvious, Minnesota is a state filled with water, much of which is just right for swimming during certain times of the year. I wonder, were any of the website hits from famous swimwear designers? Who knows, maybe some of the highly-successful icons of the fashion industry, such as Anne Klein or Issac Mizhri, have been making use of the wonderful resources to be found in our collections. Now, if we could only get some sort of a commission on their award-winning designs!

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

Swimsuit from MCHS collections

Swimsuit from MCHS collections

Another womens swimsuit from MCHS collections

Another women's swimsuit from MCHS collections

Yet another womens swimsuit from MCHS collections

Yet another women's swimsuit from MCHS collections

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